Chester, in Delaware County, PA
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Dave Komarnicki's Recollections of Growing Up in Chester
For Everything a Time - If Not a Reason
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Everything a Time - If Not a Reason
I have few memories of one-on-one conversation with Pop. He normally worked ten hours a day (except, of course, for Sunday), and there was little time left for small talk with number eight in his line of ten children. But we did talk occasionally, just the two of us, and one such meeting of our minds was really “big talk” over a very small issue.
It took place on a particular Friday evening outside the bedroom he shared with me and my brother George. It was my usual habit to slink into the room on cats’ paws, creeping past Pop’s white-enameled bed, which—thanks to the streetlamp outside our bay window—cast a shadow like prison bars on the flower-papered wall. Once huddled into the small space left over from George’s sprawl on the bed we shared in the far corner of the room, I’d prop my pillow up so I could observe Pop. He’d lie flat on his back, inhaling air through his nostrils, then exhaling little breath-puff explosions—his rhythmic routine as regular as the movement of the hands on his faithful Bulova vest-pocket watch.
Many, many nights I’d lie in that corner, entertained as I waited for sleep by the nocturnal noises of Chester seeping through the lace curtains. I could hear the grinding drone of the trolley as it advanced down Market Street one block west and the subtle click of cleated shoes touching down on the smooth sidewalk in front of the Eagles Club across the street. From inside the Eagles I could hear the piano player romancing the keys with a repertoire of Irish tunes, polkas, love songs, and ballads, all of them embedded in the psyches of sentimental patrons trying to drown out, with each elevation of the elbow, the pains of the current war.
But back to what I was saying about conversing with Pop on that fated Friday evening. I was leaning on the stair rail outside our second-floor bedroom, just having finished lacing up the new high-tops I’d bought with money earned from peddling newspapers. There’s a special surge of strength that kids get from inhaling the pungent aroma of new shoe leather, but this pair of high-tops packed a special whammy that went beyond the norm. On the outside of the right shoe, about three inches below the top eyelet, was a penknife pouch, and in it was a shining-new pearl-handled beauty. I pulled it out, my fingers and thumb gliding across its smooth surface, and I felt a sensation beyond words as I reflected on all the uses possible with my Very Own Pocketknife.
Just then Pop stepped through the bedroom doorway, dressed for town and wearing a smile as bright as his dapper tie. But the smile faded quickly as he spotted the penknife in my hand. He eased tenderly into fatherly reasons why a pocketknife, in my possession, would not be a healthy thing, and I sensed by his deliberate tone and the logical progression of his rationale where this would end. I waited respectfully for a pause, and when it came I countered, “But, Pop, the knife came with the high-tops.” I pointed to my right calf. “See, there’s a pocket for it right here. Can’t you see it? The shoes wouldn’t look right if the knife weren’t in there. And they wouldn’t fit right either. The laces can’t tighten with the right torque if the pocket’s empty.”
The word torque seemed to puzzle Pop, but he heard me out. Perhaps he was reflecting on his own boyhood on the family farm back in the Ukraine and wishing he’d had a pair of high-tops as he’d followed the cows back to the barn, his feet making a sucking sound each time he pulled them out of the thick mud that oozed above his shoe tops. I tried to appeal to the long-covered-up kid in him, and when that didn’t work I presented the argument that times had changed since he’d been a boy milking the cows. “Every kid has a penknife, Pop,” I told him. “What can I tell them at school if I don’t have one?” I mustered every appeal I could stutter out and held it up before his Supreme Court of reason, but neither emotion nor logic worked. So I tried a detour into economics, reminding him that I’d bought the shoes myself with earnings from my nightly meanderings of unforced child labor. I even appealed to authority, blurting out, “Mom said it was okay!” (This was not strictly true, however. Mom knew about the high-tops but not about the package deal that came with them).
Like a shipwrecked sailor losing his grip on his life preserver, I sank down the wall to sit on the patchy linoleum floor. Pop followed me down, dropping to one knee in order to maintain eye contact. My last ploy was a series of facial contortions, such as I’d witnessed in an Andy Hardy movie at the State Theatre, where Mickey Rooney was begging Lewis Stone for something equally vital to a kid’s well-being. But Pop was a visionary, and he saw beyond my present grief to arguments unsolvable by pacifism, situations calling for urgent self-defense, and eventually to bloody street fights. I saw the same set of his jowls and the same look in his eyes that he’d worn the night he’d marched us into the cellar and had us toss George’s Red Ryder BB gun into the flaming furnace. Pop had a compartment in his mind called “Harm’s Way,” and once he put something there it was there to stay. The pearl-handled beauty would be joining items such as the BB gun and firecrackers and activities such as throwing rocks at each other, wielding ice picks in simulated war games, and family fistfights. The aforementioned activities usually met with welt-raising strappings in proportion to the offense, and Pop often quoted chapter and verse to show that his judgments came from a higher source: “He who spares the rod (or strap) hates his son (David), but he (Pop) who loves him is careful to discipline him.” In severe cases he had a double-whammy from King Solomon: “If you punish with the rod, your son will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” After much pondering I’d concluded that it was good that Pop was taking my soul so seriously but he sure was raising a lot of welts on my body to save it!
And so my triple-bladed, pearl-handled knife was confiscated that evening by the outstretched hand of Pop. I placed it in his palm with agony akin to when my tonsils had been snipped away on the operating table of Chester Hospital by Dr. Gallagher. Ah, but into my hand Pop placed a shiny half-dollar—compensation for the current misery and the sleepless nights that would follow.
Over the next few days I worked hard to assuage my anguish, judiciously eking out the half-dollar with treats from Charlie Peck’s Confectionary and Ice Cream Emporium across the street. By Friday the reparations had run out, and though my stomach was full I still felt an emptiness in my heart for the confiscated treasure. That very afternoon, however, while I was walking down Deshong Street after school, Dudley Wilson challenged me to a marbles shoot-out in his side yard next to Massie’s Parking Lot. I accepted and, with all the focus a malcontent kid can bring to a game, I cleaned him out. My pockets were stuffed to overflowing. Just before his mom hollered him inside for supper, Dudley reached down, unsnapped the side pocket on his high-tops, pulled out a pearl-handled penknife, and handed it off to me in exchange for the restoration of his marbles.
I carefully stuffed the duplicate of my lost treasure deep into the left-front pocket of my dirt-encrusted Levis and sauntered home for supper, stroking the pearl handle with thumb and forefinger and reflecting on the mysteries of life.
Today, in retrospect, I can see that the answer lies in the country-western grab bag of wisdom: “You gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” Or, as I might have put it at the age of 13, “You gotta know when to buy ’em and know when to cash ‘em in; you gotta know who’s the ultimate boss and know how to barter loss.” For everything there’s a time and a season, and even when there seems to be no reason there is.
P.S. I kept my treasure in a White Owl cigar box buried under a stack of sweat sox in my closet. I used it to whittle wood carvings, slice strips of balsa wood for model planes, cut rope on bundled newspapers, and most of all to beat my brother George at mumblety-peg wherever and whenever I could talk him into a game. Never once did I get into a bloody street fight.
© 2003 David Komarnicki, all rights reserved.
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This page last updated 10/18/05